Monday, November 02, 2009

Writing as Chess

... working on website ...
... working on Orycon programming ...
... writing ...

I'm doing Nanowrimo again this year.  That's National Novel Writing Month.  The minimum is fifty thousand words to get a certificate of completion.  That's about the right size for a YA--you'd want to almost double that for a fantasy, and have 20-30k more for romance, etc.  

Anyway, to watch the drop out rate of Nanowrimo is to see for yourself the difficulties people run into when they sit down to write a novel.  I can compare it to chess.

Beginning chess players just know how the pieces move.  (Most writers have heard and read stories all their lives.  They know how the pieces are supposed to move.)  So they start out moving their pieces any way they can.  Most of them get lost after the first few moves as far as what to do next.  They know that they have to get a checkmate, but that seems impossibly far away.  If they've chosen a challenging situation (multiple point of view characters, an elaborate plot, a demanding genre such as mystery or historical where the readers have particular and high expectations) they will wash out literally in just a few pages.  They give up.  

If they've kept it simple, they'll get to the muddle in the middle.  This is usually the next big wash out place.  The story seems to take over and keep secrets from them.  Characters 'don't behave.'  They start losing track of story elements, character names (heck, I've forgotten character names in the middle of short stories!) and they seem to run out of 'things to do.'  In chess, there are just so many pieces in the active part of the board, the beginning chess player doesn't know which one is the right one to move.  In fact there may be several right ones to move and all would be well, but often they're so overwhelmed they just pick what seems easiest, or least dangerous.  Beginning storytellers do that too.  It's called choosing the low-hanging fruit, and the story becomes predictable, or characters are forced to do dumb things that no one who put five minutes of thought into the problem would do, etc.  

Sometimes, though (we're talking about just a few survivors at this point) the writer makes it through the muddle in the middle.  It's a mess to be sure, and they've usually put themselves (in chess terms) in a bad position.  They may have lost many of their best attacking pieces, or opened up pawn files (lost minor characters) that turn out to be quite important.  But they're still alive ...

Only to lose in the end.  They can't figure out an ending.  The ones that are really determined persevere, but often, even when it looks like the goal is in site, beginning writers find themselves out of the muddle in the middle with 45,000 words or more behind them and can't think of 5,000 more (the length of a short story) to pull it all together.  Suddenly the laundry becomes terribly important.  Or they just want to write "and they lived happily ever after" knowing that they're missing something critical.  That's the satisfying part of a satisfying ending.  The checkmate.  To learn it, you have to do it, and beginners just haven't gotten to the ends of things often enough to learn this skill.  Like a beginning chess player who somehow makes it through the complexities of the end game with a chance to actually succeed, they don't know how to force their opponent into a situation from which s/he can't escape.  

When the king topples--sometimes requiring a sacrifice--the game is over.  Easy to say, hard to do as many beginning chess players find out, chasing the opponent's king all over the board and never quite catching it.  In writing terms, they don't know how to wrap up the story in such a way that the ending wasn't dull and predictable, yet somehow feels inevitable based on all that has come before.

These 'beginning' problems never actually go away.  They just become easier to deal with, given experience.  The focus can turn more toward the actual game (story) instead of trying to get past these various obstacles.  Getting that experience, though, is tough.  The only way to get it is to write the novel.  To the end.  Whatever it takes.  Those first ones are messy and probably won't read well.  But the brain learns.  The mind discovers what works and what doesn't and does better the next time.  

That's the value of Nanowrimo, that and writing a novel in a month hones other skills.  Writing to deadline.  Daily writing.  If you're an outliner, adapting or going off outline or reworking an outline when the story inevitably takes a surprising turn.  Planning for and working around holidays is also a very valuable skill, and is one of the reasons why Nanowrimo is purposefully scheduled in November.

The support system is amazing.  There are people from all around the world on the forums to help and commiserate with.  If you've ever toyed with the idea of writing a book, this is the time and place to do it.  It's only day two.  You can do it!


von said...

Thanks for your comments on flogging. You can read the rest of the book at

I too am doing Nanowrimo, a sci-fi coming of age called 'schoolhouse spaceship'.

Good luck on your novel!

The Moody Minstrel said...

Every time I hear about this I'm tempted as hell. I dunno, Kami, do you think I should go for it?

Mark Jones said...

I'm doing NaNo for the first time this year, and it's churning up all sorts of dreck for me. I'm having really difficulty with the idea that I don't have to swallow the elephant all in one mouthful; I can do it bite by bite.

Plus, I'm sure that it will be a particularly miserable example of an elephant anyhow. Nobody in their right mind would find any value in that elephant!

Nonetheless, I'm going to eat that damn elephant one bite/day at a time.

Kami said...

Hey all,

Good luck to you too, Von! Sounds like a fun idea. I'm doing YA too this year. You can track my progress--I'm kzmiller (I know, such an imagination ...)

Moody, I think you'd have a lot of fun with it. Come on in, the water's fine!

Yay Mark! What you mentioned about Nano churning up dreck is yet another good reason to do Nano. How else to work this stuff out? Those doubts are as toxic to a writer as alcoholism, and they're even more pervasive in the writing community. This is a good time to learn how to make those doubting voices shut up.

I put my doubters in virtual mayonnaise jars on a shelf in my office and watch them jump up and down, shouting (silently) about how crappy a writer I am and how no one will ever want to read my crap, slowly running out of air ... I let some air in now and then. I'm not that cruel. Besides, they're kinda cute in a Tinkerbell sort of way.